Episode 12, Season 2: Communal land and ownership — A conversation with Pittsburgh affordable housing advocates

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Crystal on the historical and social throughlines Pittsburgh needs to discuss affordable housing.

Crystal Jennings and Ed Nusser represent City of Bridges Community Land Trust. They believe building permanent affordable housing and increasing community control through homeownership is a way to address displacement and development throughout changing neighborhood housing markets in Pittsburgh.

Jourdan: Hello, everybody, welcome back to Episode 12. From the Source, it's Jourdan again, we're back this week talking about community land trusts. Now, for those of you who have been with PublicSource for a while, we've been covering the affordable housing movement for the last few years. Land banks, inclusionary zoning policies, community land trusts, they're all a part of the toolkit that cities, including Pittsburgh, are using to ensure that in neighborhoods where development is happening, low-wealth families and individuals still have a place to stay or can move to an equally affordable place in a different neighborhood to live, a.k.a. maintaining that there are affordable units available to everyone. Just last week, in a piece released by our amazing enterprise reporter Charlie Wolfson, Charlie spoke with mayoral candidate Ed Gainey on inclusionary zoning in Lawrenceville and his desire to extend the policy throughout the city.

Charlie: I interviewed him three days after he won and I asked him, what does your election mean for affordable housing in Pittsburgh? Among the first words he said was, quote, I want inclusionary zoning. Beyond that, in that interview, he didn't give other specific policies. He said, I want to bring on people who are, quote, wiser than me on the topic of housing to kind of advise him. On his website and some of his campaign materials, he talked about a few other policies. You mentioned land trusts, which we're going to get to in this episode. And he mentioned the Pittsburgh Land Bank, which is a Peduto program that really never took off during the current administration. It was really riddled by lots of problems and it didn't accomplish its goals. But he said he wants to kind of put a new priority on that and make it more functional.
So inclusionary zoning. It's a pretty simple concept. It is the city requiring any developer who wants to build, say, an apartment building of a certain size to reserve a certain percentage of those units for low-income renters. The only instance of this in Pittsburgh so far is in Lawrenceville. And they began a pilot program of inclusionary zoning in 2019. So for that area where that applied, they said for developers who build buildings with 20 units or more, they would have to reserve 10 percent of those units to be affordable housing. Now, since 2019, it's been two years. A lot of that was during the pandemic. So development, they think was slower than it would have been otherwise. But even so, that program in two years has resulted in 40 affordable housing units, which at that number includes some that are under construction right now. So that's the first real test of it in Pittsburgh. And it's actually city council is currently considering whether or not to make that permanent. In Lawrenceville, it was a pilot program that was set to expire after two years, which this July is when that will happen. Council had a hearing last week with Lawrenceville leaders and residents, and the testimony was really overwhelmingly in support of making it permanent. And some even called for making that percentage higher. So instead of 10 percent of the units, they want it to be 15 percent or even higher. So that's inclusionary zoning. That's something Gainey has said. He wants it to be a citywide policy. In my reporting, which you can read in this story, is that it's not so simple, just making one citywide policy because each neighborhood has different market factors, different economic factors. So they would need slightly different policies, but it is likely that we will see it at least discussed to move beyond Lawrenceville and may be implemented in lots of other places.

Jourdan: What are some of the trends that you can pick up on in terms of some of the strategies to make affordable housing more available to people? I know we're talking about inclusionary zoning, community land trust, land banks, but is there a more popular strategy in Pittsburgh? Is there something that outside of the Lawrenceville example that we've tried in the past that hasn't worked?

Charlie: But one of the problems is that the city and the URA, which is the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the city and the URA, owns a ton of property in the city. A lot of it is unoccupied. Some of that is falling into disrepair. Those properties could be used to create affordable housing. The process for developers or individuals acquiring those properties has been so inefficient it takes years for people to acquire these properties. The Land Bank was created about seven years ago under Mayor Peduto to streamline that. So the land bank would acquire the properties, clear the titles if it was an abandoned property, and it would quickly transfer those properties to a developer or a individual buyer. Now, the land bank was never fully staffed. It never really got off the ground. It didn't accomplish those goals. That's just really slowed down a big part of how we could get more affordable housing in Pittsburgh. Gainey has said he wants to improve the land bank. Alembic now has a new leader, Diamonte Walker, who is also deputy director of the URA. So the Land Bank will now have the staffing of the URA to push that forward. But so I've talked with Walker and I've done some reporting on the Land Bank and it's not likely to really take off immediately and be kind of a quick fix. The issue of what to do with all the city-owned properties, is a big one as far as the city continues to address this.

Jourdan: Thanks, Charlie. I think all this information will be really helpful in grounding people on the ground in like what affordable housing struggles, actions, inactions, processes have been over the last few years. Is there anything you want to leave the audience with before they go on and listen to this piece and then get back on the website to visit the piece that you've written on inclusionary zoning?

Charlie: I would just remind if you read the story about inclusionary zoning, which I hope you do, that is just one piece of the puzzle. It's not going to be a silver bullet, as I was told. It's a policy other cities have used more than Pittsburgh has. We're likely to see it expanded. So it's a good thing, I think, to learn about if you want to learn about affordable housing in Pittsburgh. So that's why I did the piece on it. But it's just one piece of the puzzle.

Jourdan: Because of the history of racism and intentional discrimination and segregation or people just going along with it, advocates are calling for housing justice to be a bedrock in supplying affordable units in cities to low-income families. Housing justice and housing affordability have to go hand in hand. Here in Pittsburgh, City of Bridges Community Land Trusts uses the Community Land Trusts model to preserve permanent, affordable units of housing for people by giving them a pathway to homeownership. Over the next few minutes, you'll meet Crystal Jennings and Ed Nusser from City of Bridges Community Land Trust on their professional and personal connections to the housing justice movement in Pittsburgh, the historical and social through lines that needs to be present when discussing housing justice and housing affordability in which obstruction each of them will want to take on. That means housing affordability in Pittsburgh so hard to maintain. [00:07:56][68.4]

Crystal: I’m Crystal Jennings. I am the Stewardship and Community Engagement Manager at City of Bridges Community Land Trust. [00:08:07][5.4]

Ed: And I'm Ed Nusser. I'm the executive director at City of Bridges Community Land Trust.

Crystal: I think that Pittsburgh has had an issue with housing justice since its founding, since Europeans first came to the Point. It was like, what is this? We've never had an equitable system for people of all backgrounds, of all ethnicities, of all experiences to be able to say, look, this is where I want to live and this is where I'm going to live. When I read people's experiences, when I come across people who are willing to talk to PublicSource about it, I draw like similarities to when Europeans first came and now, as far as people being able to say this is what I want to stay because my family, because of my culture, because I want to be here and the ability to stay there. How would you describe that discrepancy in our city between we want people to stay here, but when opportunity comes when it's time to redevelop, when it's time to make a neighborhood more viable, then typically, unfortunately, it boils down to someone has to leave and typically its poor people. What is that tension? Why is that like the equation?

Ed: Well, I mean, first of all, want to say I'd like to completely agree with everything you just said. I mean, you trace and this is sort of the roots of the CLT movement, is this idea of private property and land ownership showed up when people like me showed up, people who look like me showed up and said, this is ours. Now, I had this moment. I was watching a video from other CLT folks. They drew the through line that George Washington was known for being a property surveyor well before he was known for his military expertise. Right. And so, like, if you want to talk about the founding father of America, our first president made his money by drawing lines on maps and saying this is now white European property, goodbye Indigenous people. And this is where I think some of the tension with CLT and talking about like the community's going to own this land, not any individual. And like, there are real nerves there and there's real history in BIPOC communities about like, what do you mean someone else owns this? And that's a real tension. But there's also this unpacking of this thing. We've been told that individuals should own property and we have to trace that throughline back. We have to acknowledge that that idea showed up and was rooted in some way in white supremacy and colonialism. You know, there is this fable that Pittsburgh has room for everyone. It's America's most affordable city. Right? And that's not true. And we know that more communities now are seeing it. We just got new sales data for a couple of the neighborhoods that we work with, and the median single family home in Garfield last year sold for two hundred and three thousand dollars. As long as we're talking about homes as wealth creation, if I'm going to make a bunch of money when I sell my house, I'm selling it to Crystal. That means Crystal's got to pay me a bunch of money for my house. And we know in Pittsburgh that if low-income homeowner is going to sell their house to make a bunch of money, which can be a generational and family changing thing, the person buying that house probably doesn't look like that family. And so you start to see neighborhood change really rapidly as a CLT. We're not saying individuals who have put their flag down in their neighborhood and made their neighborhood theirs and watched Pittsburgh bottom out and recover we're not saying don't capitalize on that. We're just saying moving forward, we need to make sure there's access for people just like them in this neighborhood. Because if the test is purely about how much wealth a homeowner can extract from their home, then there's not going to be room for low-income people. There's not going to be room for people of color because we know the wage gap. And no, we know the national wealth gap and we know the local wage gap between white and Black Pittsburghers is, is astronomical.

Jourdan: In a report published by the Gender Equity Commission in September of 2019, it was reported that white women in the city make only 78 cents to every dollar white men make, and Black women make only 54 cents to every dollar white men make. So you know Pittsburgh is small, and I'm sure some of you may recognize Crystal's voice, maybe because you know her, she's your neighbor, you went to school together, or you may recognize her from the 2015 fight to save the Penn Plaza housing complex. At City Bridges, as the stewardship and community engagement manager, Crystal is responsible for assisting people as they navigate the process to purchase a home. Crystal says that she also feels a personal responsibility to explain to people, to educate and to inform them on why the neighborhoods that they're coming from look the way that they do or cost the price that it costs to live there and the design choices behind how we live, where we live in our city. From the school district their children are part of to which grocery stores are in their neighborhood and beyond. She says she often uses the video segregated by design as a tool to explain this to her clients.

Crystal: The talks about redlining, how there were, there were African-American or just communities that they decided to let us tear it down and put in a highway. So, you guys, we're going to put you guys in this segregated area, all of you. But let's take away your grocery store. Let's take away the library. Let's take away, you know, the schools, or if they do leave the schools and our teachers are not that good, we're not going to give you any supplies, no books, no paper. So they segregated us from where we were to most probably where we are now, you know, there are certain communities now that are predominantly Black. How did we get there? You know, we were over here and you took us over here. You withdrew grocery stores like Hazelwood’s, right, grocery store. You see what I'm saying? So there's a history on how we get to where we are today. And that video just highlights a very smidgen of that. But I definitely suggest everyone needs to watch it.

Ed: It's based on the book, “The Color of Law,” which does a really deep, deep dive into all of these things. And, you know, even locally. Right, you talk about certain places, Mt. Lebanon was a place where it was, it was illegal to sell a house to a Black person in Mt. Lebanon 60 years ago. And so, you know, you want to trace the throughline of, ok, who could own a house in that neighborhood 60 years ago? So who made a bunch of money 30 years ago when they sold that house and who bought that house? These things all become self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing cycles. There isn't an easy solution to unpacking 400 years of American colonialism and white supremacy. But I think that it begins with conversations like this and it begins with imagining a different way of how we orient ourselves to housing and how we orient ourselves to community.

Crystal: Let's talk about a different way. So I say it is paying it forward program back into CLT now 20, 50 years on, unless someone just like you can get that same exact house when you go to sell it to somebody who looks just like you, who can afford it, that has made the same amount of money just like you. So that's one thing that I've been trying to educate people. But like you said, Jourdan, we're taught growing up that we have to own the land or we're never going to benefit. What I'm trying to also tell people is that this is communal land. It's not us that picks who purchases the land. It's the community that picks because we have a community advisory board for whatever community that our houses are in. It's the community that picks who they want in the community. You don't see color. You just see basic facts. You know, you don't you don't even get to see either Black or white or anything like that. You'll know if they have kids, you know, how much they make, where they work at, what ties they have to the community, which is very important. We want to have the community pick people who has ties to the community. OK, my kids go to the school around the corner. The mother or father works up the street or down the street. Grandma lives about two blocks over. OK, that's a community living situation where I don't want to move if I have the opportunity to stay.
Jourdan: New Communities Incorporated is the first Community Land Trust to be established in the United States in 1969as a farm collective in Lee County in Georgia. It grew out of the Southern Civil Rights Movement as a tool for establishing a new form of land tenure for Black farmers and their families. The goal? Give African-American farmers in the South access to farmland, to have the ability to work it cooperatively and then have security, in the housing that they established on the land. Today, City of Bridges has two programs: the CLT Team Development Program and their Buyer Initiated program, the buyer initiated program. They help people with down payment assistance and grants to close that affordability gap for low- and moderate-income buyers who purchase homes on the market or with the CLT development program. CLT Bridges is able to create affordable housing for low-income or moderate-income family residents. The difference between the two in the development program, they help you find a home and in the buyer initiate a program. You come to them with the home that you've found, and they help with the down payment assistance.

Crystal: At the end of that program, we're able to give potential homebuyers up to $35,000 as a down payment, closing cost assistance in order to help rehab the home. But in return of receiving that money, we ask, you know, you save a little bit of affordability for the next person to come behind you, and that's where to see to CLT land part comes in and we have that conversation and educating them on that. So, I mean, I love, I love the model. Again, it came from our ancestors. It's been here. We just weren’t taught this. We're already not taught a lot in school. Right. They teach us what they want us to know. It’s hard trying to reteach or plant a new seed and someone’s head, if they're not willing to grasp or even listen to the information that's given. So it takes a couple of conversations for people to get, grasp it. It takes a lot of questions, a lot. And we always say no question is a dumb question. Just throw it out there and we have an answer for you. If we don't, we'll find it.

Ed: Beyond the nuts and bolts of community owns the land, homeowner owns their home, permanent affordability, ground lease, Crystal had hit it exactly right. The difference in the model of CLT work is in stewardship. It's in ensuring that those homeowners are successful. It's not just about getting you to the closing table and handing keys and saying, cool, we're on to build the next one. See you never. CLT work really begins when we sell a house because we're invested with every one of our homeowners to make sure that they're successful as homeowners.

Jourdan: So how do you decide which neighborhoods to bring the CLT model to? And what are you considering, is it the rate of development, is it something concerning the census? What are you, what are you looking at?

Ed: So I think, first of all, in terms of like where our first guiding principle is, we want to be an invited partner. We don't think it should be up to us to knock on a neighborhood's door and say we have the solution for your housing challenge. We take that C in Community Land Trust seriously. But beyond that, in terms of actually determining, you know, site selection and what is a good spot to either build new homes or to renovate existing homes, we actually do have a little bit of a rubric that we walk through to look at individual properties and locations. And they're really about, you know, again, setting folks up for success. Are they close to transit? Are they close to employment? Is it a place where people are feeling either there is displacement happening or people are fearful and accurately so of displacement that's coming that they want to get ahead of? In Lawrenceville, it was very much displacement’s already happened. We need to bring some folks back in neighborhoods like Hazelwood and complications that we were having early on in Wilkinsburg. It's very much trying to be proactive and saying, like, look, we see things coming and so how can we get ahead that.

Jourdan: OK. My final question is this. For people to enter into affordable, long-term quality housing dealing with one of these issues, what would make the biggest difference is in dealing with this naive myth that there's housing for everybody, no matter what, in all circumstances that I don't know, and that in 2021, there isn't any discrimination or segregation happening? Or would you deal with the city and their plans for development and how it tends to always be encroaching on the property of those who are underserved in communities that are under invested in that leads to displacement or as a whole the housing market. Which of those three areas would you like to make the biggest difference in or see a difference being made, having the biggest impact on housing affordability, housing justice in Pittsburgh?

Crystal: Let's talk with the market in general. I am one who works well with me you can speak it and then show me. So I have a very good partnership with Create Lab over at CMU. My colleague did a study between 2010 and 2017 and she shows a graph and a map of red dots and blue dots. The blue dots are Black and brown, the red dots are Europeans. She shows how many how many blue dots have applied to purchase a house for mortgage lending and where they were where they were located when I did it, in which ones got approved or not. There's a lot of blue dots. There's a lot of red dots, so the red dots oversee the blue dots because it's easier for some people who look like to get a mortgage loan where those people, at the blue dots had to now move to because they can't afford to stay in that neighborhood. They're pretty much being pushed to the outskirts of the city or beyond like myself, I just purchased a house in February and I'm outside of the city. But of course, I was looking in the city and houses just cost too much. So there are barriers for the actual market, our bank partners that we work with or trying to help knock some of those barriers down. We work very closely with our bank partners to help our mortgage or potential homeowners get through those hurdles. We literally at 9:30, 10:30 at night, we're on the phone trying to see how we can make things happen and get this homebuyer to the finish line. I take it, I take it on as a big job of mine to help find solutions and or money to help these homebuyers get to that finish line and to help them feel the way that I feel right now, knowing that every mortgage payment that I'm making is going back into my future and my life, I want to be able to reciprocate that same feeling and enjoyment to potential homebuyers in our future.

Jourdan: For the latest in development and planning in the Pittsburgh region and more enterprise stories on the toolkit that our city is using to maintain affordability in the city, please follow the DEV Pittsburgh newsletter and sign up for it as well and follow the work of my colleagues, Rich Lord and Charlie Wolfson. And more specifically, check out

Charlie's latest piece on inclusionary zoning in Lawrenceville. Thanks for listening. Be safe. Take care of yourself. Stay well. This podcast was produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you have a story you'd like to share, please get in touch with me. You can send me an email J-O-U-R-D-A-N at PublicSource dot org. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at PublicSource dot org. I'm Jourdan Hicks.

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